Apr 1, 2020 - Technology

Pandemic sparks a run on hotspot devices for students

Illustration of hand erasing blackboard with the WiFi symbol.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has caused shortages of life-saving equipment like masks and ventilators — and now, we could be running low on WiFi hotspots, devices that use cellular signals to create local networks.

Why it matters: Demand is outpacing supply of the normally niche product, now a hot commodity for schools and libraries looking to bring online learning to students who lack internet access at home.

Where it stands: There are probably fewer than half a million hotspots available from the major carriers in the U.S., and the Asia-based supply chains that could replenish that stock continue to face coronavirus-linked disruptions, said Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway, a nonprofit that works with schools to increase broadband access.

  • That pales in comparison to the millions of students without broadband that school districts are looking to assist nationwide. (According to FCC estimates, 21 million Americans lack high-speed internet access, though that number could be higher due to problems with data collection.)
  • AT&T and Verizon confirmed that hotspots are in high demand, in some cases exceeding supply or leading to delivery delays.
  • "For this school year, there is basically no chance we can get all these kids online using hotspots," Marwell said.

Of note: Even some small orders of hotspots that predate the crisis are going unfilled.

  • The Kansas City Public Library, which planned to loan out the devices to patrons, ordered 100 at the beginning of the year. So far, 25 have arrived, and deputy director Carrie Coogan said she doesn't know when the rest will come.
  • Donors have offered to pay for more hotspots, Coogan said, but it's a question of supply, not money. "It's frustrating because not only do we not know if we’ll get the number we ordered, but we have the opportunity to get more and we can’t get those either," she said.

The best short-term solution might be to rely on secondhand or refurbished smartphones that could be used as hotspot devices, said wireless industry consultant Chetan Sharma. (Many smartphones today can act as hotspots too, which is one reason inventory of the standalone devices was limited to begin with.)

  • The 1Million Project Foundation, which provides connectivity devices to high schools, has begun offering smartphones as an alternative.

Yes, but: Even low-end smartphones like the $75 models the 1Million Project provides are more expensive than hotspots, which can run as little as $45, said project president Doug Michelman.

  • "If all they're trying to do is solve connectivity, a hotspot is the most economically efficient option," he said.
  • Hotspots also have longer battery life and provide a stronger WiFi signal than smartphones, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition.

Meanwhile: The issue comes as lawmakers debate spending federal funds on hotspots for students in need as part of broader coronavirus stimulus efforts.

  • House Democrats sought $2 billion for schools to pay for WiFi hotspots and connected devices including laptops or tablets, though that didn't make it into the $2 trillion package President Trump signed Friday.
  • Education Superhighway's Marwell said he'd prefer technologically neutral funding that could be used for home broadband connections, hotspot devices or even more creative solutions like equipping school buses with WiFi and parking them in neighborhoods with students in need.
  • “Hotspot-capable devices are widely available, and Congress should be focused on providing funding to support any device that can deliver the connectivity kids need right now," said Nick Ludlum, spokesman for wireless trade group CTIA.
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